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What the Best College Students Do by Ken Bain (review)

From: The Review of Higher Education
Volume 36, Number 4, Summer 2013
pp. 552-553 | 10.1353/rhe.2013.0049

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In the field of higher education, we have long sought to instruct, guide, develop, and encourage students to do their best in college. The best students succeed; but as for those who fail, we often give up and move on to other students who can meet the challenges we arrange in courses and degree programs. Since more needs to be learned about how successful students prosper, Ken Bain conducted a research project that seeks to explain What the Best Students Do in their college years. This book is a welcome and needed follow-up to his award-winning and best-selling book What the Best College Teachers Do (Bain, 2004) that I reviewed for the Review of Higher Education back in 2005. Once again, Bain has produced a work that won the 2012 Virginia and Warren Stone Prize, Harvard University Press, just as his previous book did in 2004. Excellent research and writing is contained in this very interesting hardcover that examines an intriguing topic with fascinating stories about successful and creative individuals who went to college.

Ken Bain is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia, and is a historian who spent many years becoming a world-renowned expert on faculty development and student learning. He founded and directed four major teaching and learning centers at New York University, Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, and Montclair State University. His many years of experience as a history professor, scholar, consultant, and academic leader are evident in the content and method of his work.

The book contains both primary and secondary research on students who succeeded in college and after graduation, based on a combination of interviews and a discussion of previous research studies blended thoughtfully to reinforce and update the literature. Prior studies have explored student learning styles, demographic/biographical characteristics, course design, and a variety of influences on student performance. This book seeks to identify distinctive traits of individuals who excelled in life, specifically examining their attitudes and behaviors before and during their college years.

Bain and his research partner, wife, and collaborator Marsha Bain selected several dozen people who achieved great accomplishments and became very successful. These individuals are creative problem solvers, often showing great passion in their endeavors such as medicine, law, business, politics, computers, art, music, and other areas, usually winning prestigious awards and achieving great recognition. However, they were not necessarily the best students in elementary, secondary, or even postsecondary education in regard to traditional expectations such as grades. Therefore this book could have been titled "What highly effective people did and thought during their college years," because one of the findings of the research is that these individuals have enduring qualities that were sometimes (but not always) established before they entered college and lasted long afterward.

Nevertheless, several of the people interviewed were strongly influenced by a certain college course or professor. It is fascinating to read what these extremely productive and creative members of society thought as they experienced the collegiate system we know so well and what influence the curriculum we plan and deliver actually has on their achievements in life. The best students use metacognition to "think about their thinking while they think" (p. 24), make connections between courses and subjects, and pay extra attention to what fascinates them most.

Bain astutely points out that, today, "the financial pressures to rush through school, to get a degree, and get a job are tremendous. Yet schools do not bear all of the responsibility. They are set in a larger society that constantly pushes people toward the superficial and encourages students to value honors and recognition over deep understanding" (p. 42). The importance of deep learning, as opposed to surface and strategic learning, is a theme that runs throughout the book. The best college students seek more in college courses—and life in general—than just memorizing facts or cleverly trying to obtain the best grade. Deep learning goes beyond what is minimally expected for passing the course or getting a good grade. It means that students have a genuine curiosity about the topic, try to see how it is related to other topics, develop a...



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